Pahnke sat on the window-sill smoking. Her dark hair crowded her face and I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t recall if she was beautiful or not.
The windows were large and open. Each was made of one thin sheet of glass that reached from her foot on the sill nearly to the ceiling. An adult, standing tall, would still not fill the space left by the open window. Each pane was encased in thin wood and the paint peeled. It had rained every day we ad spend together except that one. In the afternoon the rain had slowed then stopped and the wind changed and became warm – blowing the papers and the leaves about the city and gathering them in corners and doorways. Now, the sky threatened again and the clouds crowded low over the flat roofs and red brick walls of former factories. The city was dirty and all I could see was the built destruction the money-grubbers had left after taking and destroying souls.
In the winter, Pahnke had found me in Thun and said she couldn’t bear in any longer. It rained there too, and the streets froze and old ladies slid with their rat-dogs down the streets toward the lake. In the hotel I ate cheese and bread and wrapped myself in blankets to keep warm. The Spaniard who paced the streets at midnight in a black coat trailing an empty, bumping and tossing suitcase behind her on the cobbled streets brought me wine each night.
“If I’m moving each night at midnight It’ll help me to leave here soon.” I didn’t understand but I knew she wanted to go home, and she would toss her hips forward and strut through the hollow dining room like a matador when she got drunk.
I unlocked the doors in the night to let the tourists to their beds. For this I was given my room. They would pat me on the shoulder and fumble with English as the stumbled upstairs. The Americans would leave me a dollar on the counter and mutter amongst themselves about how I could have possibly learned to speak English so well. I never told them I was an American. I never told them how I knew what they knew. I was too embarrassed.
Pahnke tested me. What would I do if she were to be on the train and arrived that night? She recited the rain times and I knew she was serious. What would I do? She and I both wanted to know.
I wanted it and that is what frightened me. Winter is not the time to fall in love. It’s not love; it’s desperation. A soul pleads to be wrapped about a warm body at night in the winter and must have a friend to hold and spill into. A winter without that means all is lost. In the spring you will have to be reborn and any chance at continuity will die. So will you. And then you are a set of ghosts instead of a whole being. I watched glowing yellow windows from the bridge above the Ar and knew that comfort reigned indoors. For once, to be outside was a prison. That is jealousy. If Pahnke came the winter wouldn’t torture as it had, but in the spring I would leave. Killing Pahnke was what actually frightened me.
I cut the line and prayed for time. The kitchen was cold. Modern and of steel. I couldn’t wait for the Spainiard to bring my wine and some warmth. I paced there in my blanket and sweaters and read books about home. At home I read books about all of these places.
“When I met you,” she spoke from the window-sill, “I…well…my life was falling apart. Or almost. On the edge.” She always sought words in pain because she thought her English was terrible. It wasn’t. Each word came out perfectly the firest time. When she reconsidered and tried again, she fumbled and disaster set in. “You are my dreams,” she said, then thought, then said, “you are what I dream to be.” Lost? I thought. I recoiled at the idea of being someone’s dream.
“I want to throw everything away so I have what you have.”
“Nothing?” I said.
“Freedom.” I almost laughed but I wanted her to believe what she said because I needed to believe it for myself. “But I can’t. My mom is sick. If I leave her she will die. She told me so…” Pahnke paused, “and I love him. He doesn’t want me but I love him.”
In Roskilde, on the beach, she told me about him. That was as winter came and I couldn’t believe how warm the north could be in October. He got fat and content – comfortable at least. He used to love her but now he tolerated her, waiting for something better to come along. He told her this once in a bar when he was drunk. She stood numb, then cried inside. Later, she kissed an Englishman in the corner when he had passed out. It was a sort of revenge but she still loved him. He told her his job would take him away soon – to America or Japan. He didn’t know when but he didn’t want her to go with him. She came Roskilde by herself.
From the beach where you could see the Viking ship, I took her picture and she put her arm through mine. “can you smell that?” She asked. She whispered and stuck her nose in the wind. “When I was a girl, these windy days killed me. They tore me apart. “She spoke as if revealing a terrible secret but I just wanted to roll my eyes. I didn’t want to hear such things. “It always came from someplace else, the wind. And it carried on it the scent of someplace else, and I died to go , but I never did. Today it snowed,” she finished and pulled deeply on the air. But it hadn’t snowed, I knew and looked around. A tourists sandcastle was being swept away and people deserted the beach.
“Someplace,” she said, seeing my confusion. I can smell it on the wind. And the days when it rains, or will, and when someone cooks in France and their window is open, or someone opens a bottle of wine on a mountainside in Italy, or pulls a fish from the sea, or when the wind kicks up a dust in Africa…it comes to me! And I could feel those places! Know them!” She squeezed me tight, then relaxed and pulled her arm away and said, “But now I know how to think. I don’t need to know how to feel.” I couldn’t decide if she was beautiful or I was sympathetic.
Actually, she made me uncomfortable, nervous as hell.
We walked away from the town along the beach skirting the icy jellyfish on the sand. We passed the summer cottages being closed and boarded up for the winter. In a cove in the sand where the grass froew to hold the grains in place we huddled and waited for the night, then made love in the awkward manner of people half-clothed and exposed to the world. We dressed quickly then hudddled again, shivering in the cold. Then we walked back to the town and drank beer in silence.
From the window-sill she began to cry and I laid back on the bed and sighed. It was so gray, all around us. The clouds and the walls. Her skin and the smoke that clung to the air. Nothing was black ro white and we didn’t know where to go. Or I didn’t. Her mind was made up. I didn’t have any reason to be there.
In Thun, my friend asked if I could lend her my ear. I turned it toward her and she grabbed it in her fingers and pulled me across the table and put her mouth against it. “You’re a fool!” She hissed then sat back to laugh. “My God boy! The woman wants and affair! Who are you to not give it to her?”
She was appalled at my not wanted to meet Pahnke again. “You had sex with her already! And you said you love her!”
“But. She has a man!” I protested.
“It obviously doesn’t bother her! Why should it bother you? Now. You listen boy…” She pushed herself away from the table, wiped her mouth and polished off her wine. “Are you fine here?” It was her house. I nodded. “I’m off with a man tonight. Don’t you wait up for me; I’m going to be very late. Poor dear! She leaned down and kissed my cheek and said, “December has lasted all year, hasn’t it?” She pitied me and left her apartment, leaving me with the dishes. I didn’t mind.
Yet, in four days we had not touched once. I felt empty watching her cry. I wanted to run away. I didn’t know her. I felt scared. Scared and empty. Pahnke turned again to look out into the gray. “I’m old already. Thirty-five years old and very old. What would anybody want with me?” I disagreed but said nothing. I thought I loved her at that moment. She lit another cigarette. “I have nothing with my life. I like candles. Life just begins and already I have unused, saggy breasts, a big butt…I cough and hack like an old woman and my man only wants someone younger. Or more glamorous. I’m just me!” She sobbed and I only saw a different woman than the one she knew. “I’m me. Gray. Brown baggy clothes and old face.” She blew through her lips. “Love or some spot of joy…that comes out of the blue sky. Its always raining on this land. Even the trees drown. Tell me again how many sunny days a year you have in New Mexico?”
My spirit dropped – not that it had far to go, but now the bottom fell out. I sat up and faced away from her and listened to the rain. Pahnke continued hating herself and I wondered what the hell I was doing in this city, in this country on this continent. I did not know these people. I didn’t speak their language. And Pahnke was one of them. She had convinced me to hate her and so I hated them all. I realized I couldn’t make it on my own. Then I wondered who I really hated.
“I can’t be with you!” She exclaimed. I hadn’t had a chance to talk. “I’m not good enough for you!” And I thought: whose movie is this anyway? And I began considering what it would be like further south where spring was already touching the soil and the trees and the fields and the people could sit outside and sip the wine grown on the hillsides of my winter home. I’d already broken from that place, I thought, now just one step further.
Pahnke turned toward me, facing my back, and sobbed her love for me. In my head I said…I’ve lost myself. I’ve lost myself. Excuse me…but I think I’ve lost myself. Pahnke cried and spoke of him, and me, her love, and what she thought she couldn’t be. Pahnke named places from my youth, from home, and begged me to take her there. These were the fantasies I had filled her head with months earlier. I was sick of her saying those names. I wanted to scream to her to shut her mouth. “I want to see New Mexico,” she pleaded as if that would save her. I’ve lost myself. Just for a minute and I’m sorry but I’ve lost myself….sorry. My head repeated it to my soul. It became a mantra.
Pahnke wiped her eyes and turned back to face the gray. She lit another cigarette. My bag was still at the train station I recalled while my brain poured forth with its chant. Sorry, sorry, sorry…I’ve lot myself. Just for a minute, it’s all over, but I lost myself….
Pahnke was silent. I stood, gathered my coats and walked out the door.
This story first appeared in CATCH-VOLUME2, oddfellow publishing company, Albuquerque, New Mexico 1998.